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40 Years of “Airport”: “Airplane!” (1980)

40 Years of “Airport”: “Airplane!” (1980) (photo)

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In 1970, one movie invented the modern disaster film. After grossing more than $100 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation, it made more than any of the “Lord of the Rings”), it spawned three sequels that stretched through the entire decade. But this landmark series is now almost totally forgotten, long eclipsed by the film that so brilliantly spoofed the genre tropes it helped define. In honor of its 40th anniversary, we’re looking back at the “Airport” franchise this week, one film at a time. Today, “Airplane!” said brilliant spoofer of said genre tropes.

Airplane!
Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker

Nature of Air Emergency: The passengers of Trans American Flight 209 from Los Angeles had a choice for dinner: steak or fish. Those who chose steak now have another choice: find someone to land their plane after everyone who had the fish, including the pilots, takes ill with food poisoning or crash.

How Does It Hold Up? Aside from a couple of commercial parodies that mean nothing in 2010, pretty well. After watching all those real disaster movies, the thing that struck me rewatching this fake one is how little work the Zuckers and Abrahams had to do to turn drama into comedy. After you’ve watched “The Concorde… Airport ’79” it’s really not that big of a leap to “Airplane!” Actually of the two, “Airplane!” is the more realistic movie, and it involves an inflatable automatic pilot named Otto.

11122010_airplane2.jpgAfter spending a week with George Kennedy and the rest, “Airplane!” is like the first breath of fresh air after eighteen-and-a-half hours on the nonstop flight from Newark to Singapore. Aside from “The Concorde,” which seemed vaguely aware that it was a comedy disguised as an action drama, the “Airport”s are stuffy, stuffy movies. Charlton Heston doesn’t crack a single knowing joke as he rappels onto a moving plane and Jack Lemmon seems to think riding a lifeboat from the bottom of the ocean to the surface to set off a homing beacon in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle makes perfect sense. Even without the great gags like the “Who’s On First?”-esque pilot names (“Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”), “Airplane!” would be hilarious just for pointing out the silliness of these disaster pictures. It encapsulates the entire “Airport” aesthetic in one perfect sight gag: Robert Stack dramatically punctuating a conversation by removing his sunglasses to reveal a second pair of sunglasses underneath. That’s “Airport” in a nutshell: bluster, machismo, and a total lack of self-awareness.

One of most surprising parts of this week was discovering just how good the first “Airport” was and how little its sequels took from it. The first film holds some genuine tension and human drama, and offers a pretty compelling look at the inner-workings of the air travel industry. The rest of the films are overblown exercises in excess. The arc of the series reminds me of the “Saw” franchise, which turned an original and complex morality tale into an excuse to build bigger and gorier human slaughterhouses. The formula goes something like this: Hollywood takes a fairly nuanced film, finds the most outrageous and sensational elements, and creates sequels showcasing only those parts. So a movie about an airport dealing with disaster begets movies about increasingly outrageous disasters.

11122010_airplane3.jpgAudiences may think they want bigger and better stunts and special effects, but the reason they were drawn to “Airport” were the rich human characters trying to endure and survive. On a technical level “Airplane 1975” and “Airport ’77” are far superior to “Airport,” but on an emotional level, they can’t hold a flare to it. Part of what makes “Airplane!” one of the best spoofs ever made is the fact that for all the wackiness and stupidity we identify with Ted Striker (Robert Hays) and Elaine (Julie Hagerty), and we care about whether they land that plane. They may be dumb, and their memories may be parodies of other movies, but Hays and Hagerty are so sweet and likable that we root for them in ways we never do for Heston or Lemmon.

Blustery and boring protagonists in humorless scenarios make the second through fourth “Airport”s joyless affairs, even with all the action and explosions. Obviously, an airplane disaster isn’t the most “fun” premise for an action movie, but there isn’t ever any sense of relief or pleasure when the planes land safely. That’s why “Airplane!” has endured. It’s fun to watch. We get pleasure when it lands safely, and we get more pleasure when it takes off again with Otto and his autopilot girlfriend at the helm.

Strange But True: According to IMDb, David Letterman auditioned for the role of Ted Striker.

Monday: “Airport”
Tuesday: “Airport 1975”
Wednesday: “Airport ’77”
Thursday: “The Concorde… Airport ’79”
Today: “Airplane!”

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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